A Thin Red Line

I’m sure I’m going to take heat for this negative review of The Thin Red Line – but, hey, I’m not here to please everyone, am I?

The Thin Red Line comes out on the heels of Saving Private Ryan. The better of the two is Saving Private Ryan – by a long shot. The Thin Red Line is a long and monotonous film that fails to get the audience attached to the characters in the film. If Saving Private Ryan was fast and visceral, then The Thin Red Line would be slow and methodical. The thing that Saving Private Ryan has over The Thin Red Line was focus. And without focus The Thin Red Line is unable to fully bring the horrors of war to us.

The Thin Red Line takes place on the island of Guadalcanal during the Second World War. It follows a group of soldiers who fight to take control of the island from the Japanese. That is about all of the story that one can grasp from the movie. The rest of the movie is split between voice overs, flashbacks, and shots of nature.

In Screenwriting 101, screenwriters are taught not to introduce too many characters too quickly. This is a logical rule to understand. If you introduce too many characters too quickly, you’ll quickly leave the audience shrugging their shoulders. If the audience doesn’t have characters to hold onto and relate to, the emotional impact of the film fizzles. With The Thin Red Line characters are thrown about like mad and I could find none to relate to; none to hold onto during the film. There is a character introduced briefly during the opening scenes, but he remains almost nameless and faceless throughout the film. The Thin Red Line fails in bringing the audience to terms with its characters.

The script by Terrence Malick is based on the novel by James Jones. I have not read the novel and cannot tell you how close the script sticks to the novel. The script though is slow and meanders. I found myself looking at my watch constantly during the film. The slow aimless script put with some lazy editing makes the film very tedious to sit through. There are a few times when the film feels like it’s over but then continues on.

There are some good elements to the film though. First and foremost is the performance given by Nick Nolte. Nolte, whom I last saw in Affliction, gives a wonderful performance as a man who has waited for more than 15 years to prove that he’s war-worthy.

The other thing to look for in the film is the beautiful cinematography by John Toll. In Saving Private Ryan we had a visceral and drained look which fit that film just right. In The Thin Red Line we have a colorful and vibrant look which is wonderful to look at. But, is also a good contrast to the things happening onscreen.

The battle scenes that take up most of the midsection of The Thin Red Line are technically brilliant – matching those of Saving Private Ryan. Though the battle scenes in The Thin Red Line are less gory, they still have the same impact as those in Saving Private Ryan.

What bothered me most, next to the lack of any true characters, is the fact that the director, Terrence Malick, has obviously put a lot of work into the film but has put it into all the wrong places. Everything about the film feels too worked out and there are times when the film wanders aimlessly. For instance, it was nice to see nature in the film; the crocodile, the wounded bird, the multiple wide shots of the forrest and island, but after a while the film felt like a nature documentary. Yes, a lot of the shots that I talk about are symbolic in nature, but, with half the audience nodding off, symbolism really doesn’t matter.

Don’t be fooled by the big names listed in the previews. John Travolta and George Clooney get one scene each and then they disappear. John Cussack gets some screen time but also disappears. Sean Penn and Nick Nolte are the two that get more than a handful of scenes. Do look for Elias Koteas as Captain Staros, he gives a performance to remember.

The Thin Red Line could have been one hell of a war film had a few things been fixed. First, the running time of two hours and 50 minutes could have been easily trimmed to about two hours. And the script could have been rewritten to give the audience something to relate to. As it stands there is almost no emotional impact from the script. I walked of the theatre untouched by the film. Catch The Thin Red Line on video, the battle scenes are incredible. Next to that, there’s nothing more to the film.